Government ministers from Hungary, Sweden and Israel on Tuesday launched the Raoul Wallenberg Year, commemorating the centennial of the birth of the Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.
While serving as Swedish envoy in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, from July 1944, Wallenberg gave Jews Swedish travel documents and set up safe houses for them. He is also credited with dissuading German officers from massacring the 70,000 inhabitants of the city's ghetto.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi, Swedish counterpart, Carl Bildt and Israeli Cabinet member Yossi Peled were joined at the inaugural event at the National Museum in Budapest on Tuesday by members of Wallenberg's family and Holocaust survivors he saved.
Speakers stressed Wallenberg's heroics and the importance of passing on the lessons of the Holocaust.
"He risked his life in a struggle against one of the evil ideologies that has haunted our continent," Bildt said. "There is a duty never to forget, always to remember. We have to pass on the knowledge of what happened during the Holocaust to generations to come."
The Nazis, who occupied Hungary in early 1944, launched mass deportations of Hungarian Jews to concentration camps such as Auschwitz with the collaboration of local authorities.
Martonyi said the Holocaust was the "tragedy of the whole Hungarian nation."
"During the Holocaust, the Hungarian state was weighed in the balance and found wanting ... It was unable to defend its citizens and, while under occupation, assisted their deaths," he said.
There is some confusion what happened to Wallenberg after the war. The Soviets initially denied Wallenberg was in their custody, but then said in 1957 that he died of a heart attack in prison on July 17, 1947.
After the Soviet collapse, that version of events was challenged by Alexander Yakovlev, the one-time chairman of a presidential panel investigating the fate of repression victims. In 2000, Yakovlev said he had been told by a former KGB chief that Wallenberg was killed Lubyanka prison.
That year, Russia also conceded that the Soviet authorities had wrongfully persecuted Wallenberg and posthumously rehabilitated him as a victim of political repression.
Unverified witness accounts and newly uncovered evidence have suggested, however, that he may have lived beyond his official death date.
"We can't (even) take flowers to Wallenberg's grave," Martonyi added. "We are still waiting for the full historical revelation of his life and death."
Wallenberg commemorations and celebrations of his efforts in Hungary include a memorial concert on April 15, the issue of a Wallenberg postal stamp on May 10, conferences, and a September memorial event at the Dohany Street Synagogue _ the largest in Europe.
Vladimir Isachenkov and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this story
Wallenberg Year 2012, http://wallenberg.hu/